Blockchain and Trucking: Auto-nomies of Scale

In computing, a “driver” — specifically a “device driver” — is software which governs, monitors, and pilots a hardware apparatus. However, with companies such as Google [1], Uber [2], and Tesla [3] investing in autonomous vehicles, it appears this definition will be broadened in the future. As I look towards this prospect, one technology stands out to me as the keystone to maximizing autonomous logistical efficiency in the self-piloted trucking industry: blockchain.

“Bitcoin is processing a bit less than three transactions per second. Ethereum is doing five a second. Uber gives 12 rides a second. It will take a couple of years for the Blockchain to replace Visa.” — Vitalik Buterin, Cryptographer and Author of the Ethereum Whitepaper [4]

I’m sure that, to some, what I just said seems like a pretty bold statement. It’s reasonable to ask why a centralized system wouldn’t be sufficient to conduct such an operation at scale. The answer surrounds three key features required for such a system to flow smoothly and handle irregularity in a robust way: Communication, Transparency, and Exchange.

10–4, Good Buddy

The most famous communication method in trucking is the CB radio. [5] Anyone who’s seen a movie featuring a trucker of any kind knows the unique communication methods they implement to keep each other informed of the road and the situation around them. [6] Communication is a key aspect to freight delivery, not just from the “travel agent” (CB slang for the dispatcher) in the “the yard” (CB slang for trucking terminal), but between the vehicles themselves. From alerting each other of road hazards or unsafe drivers to keeping each other awake and alert with friendly banter, CB radio has filled the niche of communication between trucker to the world he’s passing through.

This niche doesn’t simply go away because of autonomous vehicles. Efficiency is key in travel, as is awareness. If a road hazard is detected by a vehicle, it benefits the entire industry if other trucks are alerted to this hazard. How can this be accomplished without a driver, though? The information is extremely localized and temporal in value. Blockchain can be a protocol for communicating this information and even weight its value via a localized consensus.

Localized consensus networks — networks which are only viable to those nodes who are in a range of communication and whose value and participation negotiated dynamically as items flow in and out of the local region — have value in a freight transportation. Imagine a series of trucks traveling near each other to decrease air resistance and increase their net fuel efficiency. These vehicles must form a “bond” with each other. They must trust that the information shared in this bond is accurate and they must form dynamic agreements to abide by a standard operating protocol. They also must communicate this information in such a way that the vehicles can react with almost no latency. You can’t wait for a signal to travel to a satellite, back down to earth, go through a series of wires, arrive at the destination to be processed, sent back through a series of wires, back to a satellite, and down to the destined vehicle with some mixed signal reliability. You need to make sure this swarm of autonomous trucks operate within tunnels, as well, where signal is, at best, weak. Blockchain solves this issue handily by having each vehicle agree to join a unique blockchain which forms a local consensus network of shared data which they all trustlessly verify the authenticity of and act upon. The best part? Since it’s all line of sight, tunnels aren’t an issue.

Where Can a Bulldog Get Some Go Juice in My 10–20?

The benefit of blockchain doesn’t end with localized consensus. No, sir. The benefit of blockchain is that value, agreements, and exchange can occur on a grand level as well. For a vehicle to choose the best fueling station, every time, would be a huge cut to overhead. For a vehicle to get reliable notifications of alternate routes based on a global consensus system would benefit the entire industry. Autonomous vehicles must pay tolls, refuel, and even compensate maintenance personnel automatically based on a set of negotiated budgets and billing protocols. This is essential for the success of such trucks. If your vehicle gets a flat tire, it should be able to notify the dispatcher, call for assistance in the local area, and even pay that person on-the-fly. It could even ask for additional assistance with driving in the event of off-road delivery or sudden inclement weather, extending the flexibility and benefits of a gig economy to the truck-driving professional.

Give me a diablo sandwich, a Dr. Pepper, and make it quick, I’m in a god-damn hurry. — Buford T. Justice, Smokey and the Bandit (1977) [7]

The key to making this work is a system of standard and trustless communication. A public chain that has smart contracts which can broadcast shared information, ensure its accuracy, and invoke methods of assistance would be required. Why not centralization, then? Well, simply put, central systems can be attacked [8]. They’re not trust-worthy enough to have the entirety of the world’s supply chain resting on their shoulders. By not relying on central systems or trust, blockchains skirt this issue entirely.

Travel Agent: It’s Time to Leave the Yard

Managing freight logistics is a complicated role. Dispatchers do so much [9], and with each new responsibility, the possibility of more error is introduced. Determining the best delivery methods, and negotiating rates, recording miles, prioritizing cargo, invoicing, and procurement — these are a lot of tasks to ask when the end goal is simple — keep customers happy.

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify. — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Let’s analyze what blockchain is good at:

  • Creating unique identifiers for entities.
  • Allocating value to these entities.
  • Having this value trustlessly engage in agreements by standard in the form of smart contracts.
  • Post floating costs to transact.
  • Store permanent and immutable data records, chronologically.
  • Share operational data publicly for any node to observe and act upon.
  • Find where resources are by unique identifier and interact with these entities.

On a very high-level, it fulfills a lot of the more mundane duties of record keeping and invoicing. Without automating these actions, vehicles can’t rapidly react to local environmental needs in the same way that a trucker normally would. Coupled with the ability to ensure the accuracy of the items checked-in and checked-out of the vehicle during the load and unload process, even loading docks be improved.

If, however, a blockchain system was built with this automation in mind, an autonomous vehicle wouldn’t just be sufficient, it would exceed the efficacy of human-operated dispatchers by independently coordinating interests between the vehicle, a freight business, and the end customer. Dispatchers can focus on customers, getting the freight into the vehicles, and monitoring only the more extreme irregular circumstances.

Time to Hammer Down, It’s a Clean Shot

“We’re at least a decade away from having trucks with no driver in it.” — Eric Berdinis, Product Lead for Uber Freight [10]
Hands-free trucking: just a hop skip and a jump away from driverless.

It seems to me, that once all of this is accounted for, blockchain is a pre-requisite for an effective autonomous trucking industry. Back-integrating this technology would be a costly replace-job down the line. It makes sense, instead, to account for future trends now and build these systems today. Blockchain will advance sooner than autonomous vehicles, so let’s make sure these vehicles are given the best chance at a calculated success by thinking about how we’d architect trucking logistics at scale using blockchain.

I hope this helps someone!